Seeing the big picture often comes from surprising places. There is a famous Indian parable of six blind men who come across an elephant. The first blind man feels the elephant’s tusk and says it is a plowshare. The second blind man feels the leg and says it is a pillar. The third blind man feels the ears and says it must be a large shade plant. The fourth feels his body and says it is a huge wall. The fifth feels the trunk and says it is a branch of a tree. The sixth blind man is feeling the tail when he steps in something. “Um, guys,” he says, “it’s an elephant.”

In any business setting, understanding the state of a company depends a lot on one’s perspective. Executives like to pride themselves on their ability to see “the big picture,” but often can’t see problems in the functional, day-to-day operations of the organization. Employees at different parts of the company may see issues, but may only be able to address them with their direct manager.

Determining a company’s true strengths and weaknesses is often a difficult and frustrating experience for both business leaders and their employees. Oftentimes, a sense of mistrust develops between employees at different levels within the organization, and communication is stifled. However, I feel that there are definite alternatives to this direct top-down management style that allows employees a method to communicate what they feel is working both within their department and across departmental lines. The first step to doing this is to re-consider how we look at the organizational structure of a business.

The Problem of “Pyramid Thinking”

Most organizations suffer from what I refer to as “pyramid thinking.” The standard business organizational chart is often shaped in the form of a pyramid, with lower-level employees in the bottom, managers and directors in the middle and executives at the top. Departments such as marketing, finance, operations and customer service are shown side-by-side randomly, each with its own leader. The various departments form the structure of the pyramid which support the top executive level of the organization.

Although an organizational chart is just a tool to show everyone’s responsibility within the organization, people tend to take the chart literally. First, organizational charts tend to play out in the physical world. It’s a familiar sight to see executive offices on the higher levels of a building, where organizational seniority is in full display. Additionally, departments tend to divide themselves into silos with communication moving up through managers or down from senior executives. As an organizational chart rarely shows connections between mid-level employees in separate departments, communication between departments is often assumed to only happen within the executive ranks where department heads are “at the same level.”

This scenario can create several communication problems within the organization.

  • Leaders don’t bother to ask employees about potential operational improvement. Executives usually approach operational issues from a “big picture” perspective, involving multiple departments or the organization, and assume that those within the organization will not be able to provide feedback that will be relevant to those decisions. Executives are put into situations where improvements by employees may have significant costs (financial, operational, organizational) that employees may not adequately grasp. Within standard business practice, hierarchy limits the methods in which communication may travel to executives (i.e., through a manager to a director to a VP, etc.). Even relevant suggestions may be ignored if they aren’t being received through the right channel.
  • Employees often fail to consider relevant solutions to the problems that they experience. It’s an internalized cliché to envision workers struggling against the executives “who just don’t get it.” However, it’s rarely that simple. First, employees can easily mistake organizational problems (a lackluster co-worker or poor manager) for a business process problem. If a process is in place, but isn’t being implemented properly, that is a training and development problem, not a process problem. Second, workers often have a myopic view of what they see. In the corollary to the “leaders” problem of relying on the “big picture,” many workers can be focused on a “small picture” that is only relevant to them and their personal work environment. Finally, employees often assume that problems can be fixed by executives spending more money on them. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Rethinking the Organizational Chart via Business Process

Pyramid thinking’s single biggest problem is that it completely ignores the business process. A standard organizational chart cannot show how an organization works to make products or provide services. An organization exists because it is creating new technology, providing goods that people need or offering services that are wanted by the community around it. A pyramid, however, is a giant tomb. So, how can business leaders change this dynamic?

Instead of a multi-level hierarchy, use a 2×2 matrix which reflects a company’s business process to create products and provide services called the Four Corners Framework.

  1. Create an x-axis: This is the Authenticity line
  2. Create a y-axis: This is the Communication line
  3. In Quadrant 1, write the following “business stages”: Fulfillment, Customer Service, Executive-level Review & Assessment
  4. In Quadrant 2, write the following “business stages”: Branding, Marketing, Sales
  5. In Quadrant 3, write the following “business stages”: Innovation, Process, Quality Control
  6. In Quadrant 4, write the following “business stages”: Executive-level Strategy, Finance, People

The quadrants flow clockwise from Q4 to Q3 to Q2 to Q1 and back to Q4 so that the movement of ideas and actions flow through the organization in stages as a product or service would. Each business stage is a step in a process to create a product and service: setting up resources; developing and creating a product; marketing and selling it to buyers; and finally, delivering it to customers. Every healthy commercial company will have these elements within the business process, although the areas of the company in which they reside will depend greatly on the organization. For example, a manufacturing company might look like this:

  1. Quadrant 1: Fulfillment, Customer Service, Customer Feedback & [Executive level] Financial Review
  2. Quadrant 2: Public Relations, Marketing [Print, Web, Social], Sales [Inbound & Channel Partners]
  3. Quadrant 3: R&D, Manufacturing, Quality Control [ISO9001]
  4. Quadrant 4: C-Suite & Board of Directors, Finance, Human Resources

NOTE: Non-profit organizations have a slightly different format where Q1 and Q2 are switched.

There are multiple benefits to using this format. First, all departments of the organization (including executives) are seen to be on the “same level.” Organizational roles are relevant by their importance to the business process, not seniority. Departments are connected to each other by working in sequence to create value to customers.
There is also an expectation of inter-departmental communication in which employees of connected departments can give suggestions and assessments to improve the flow of information. The overall structure provides a feedback loop to make continual improvement.

Using the Four Corner Framework for Operational Feedback

Once a company’s specific format for the Four Corners Framework has been established, it is possible to get meaningful and relevant feedback from employees on how to improve a company’s overall business process. Executives should hold frequent feedback forums either with employees together or individually, preferably on a quarterly basis.

The goal is to discuss with employees four key questions:

  • In which business stage do you work?
  • How could the business process be improved in the way it moves into this business stage?
  • How could the business process be improved within the business stage?
  • How could the business process be improved in delivering to the next business stage?

By focusing specifically on an employee’s responsibilities within a business stage and the way processes can be improved, the interviewer removes the threat related to speaking about organizational dynamics and individual attacks. Additionally, by asking employees to comment on the business stages both preceding and succeeding their own responsibilities, employees are forced to consider how communication and action flows through the organization, but only where it is specific to their responsibilities and day-to-day experience. A suggestion would be to allow interviewers to come from other parts (or outside) the organization to get more frank comments.

In these forums, each of the key questions can be elaborated and expanded upon depending on the relevance to the discussion. If a business stage has several processes, depending on the products and services, then the interviewer may choose to ask about each in turn.

Many comments by employees will not be relevant or actionable. However, comments that are repeated frequently in closely aligned business stages (i.e., employees in both R&D and quality control mention that manufacturing is hard to work with) or throughout the organization (i.e., employees in eight of the 12 business stages state that problem with the IT infrastructure slows down their work) can be given priority.

By hosting feedback forums with employees, executives can help narrow the pain points of their business in a systematic and simple way. By working with employees to give them feedback on the small sections of the road they work, executives can soon improve the whole route their company travels.